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Cruising to the Galápagos Islands

Galapagos sea lion swimming at Guy Fawkes Islets off Santa Cruz Island, Ecuador Sea lion. | Photo by Tandem Stock/

The Celebrity Flora offers state-of-the-art access to the wonders of the Pacific archipelago 

On a sunny morning this spring, I was snorkeling off the coast of Isabela Island in the Galápagos when 3 whiskery sea lions suddenly appeared. As if on cue, one swerved in front of me, staring big-eyed into my mask as he passed. Then another torpedoed under me, and the third shot up from below and performed a bubbly flip right before my eyes.

The scene transfixed me, and then transported me back 20 years to when my teenage daughter had been similarly adopted by a trio of sea lions one afternoon in these same waters. For half an hour, they had played together, diving, swerving, and somersaulting. Years later, when she became a marine biologist, my daughter said it was that experience that had inspired her to follow that path. I was thinking about that on my recent visit when another sea lion roared by me, so close that the water whooshed the length of my body. It felt like a sea lion salute to my daughter and a welcome back to me.

Celebrity Flora

Celebrity Flora. | Photo courtesy Celebrity Cruises/Quentin Bacon

Returning to the Galápagos aboard a special ship

I’d returned to the Galápagos to experience the new Celebrity Flora expedition cruise ship that had been specially designed to sail these islands. I also wanted to explore some enduring questions: Could the islands possibly be as enchanting now as they had been before? And also, how had I fared? Had the passage of time dulled my capacity for wonder?

The Galápagos have been sparking wonder for ages, of course. The archipelago’s most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, spent several weeks here in 1835. His observations planted the seeds for his revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection. In The Voyage of the Beagle, his account of his 5-year journey around the world, he wrote about the Galápagos: “The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: It seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else.”

My recent Galápagos adventure began when a dozen fellow travelers and I took a motorized tender from the Flora to the white-sand beach of Española Island. Just 10 feet away, 5 sea lions were sprawled on the sand, snoozing in sunbaked serenity. As we cautiously approached, being careful to keep at least 6 feet away so as not to disturb them, one of the sea lions opened a sleepy eye, observed us for a few seconds, then shut its eye and snuggled back into the sand, whiskers twitching ever so faintly.

Marine Iguana

Marine iguana. | Photo by Gabriel Tichy/Stocksy/

“There’s life all around us”

We walked on and spotted half a dozen green-and-red marine iguanas basking in the sun, seemingly unperturbed by our presence. Our naturalist guide Carmen pointed beyond them to a series of sandy mounds. “See those rises in the sand?” she said. “Even when you can’t see it, there’s life all around us. That’s where the sea turtles lay their eggs.”

Above us, gray-and-white swallow-tailed gulls squawked and wheeled against a deep blue sky. Nearby, orange-red Sally Lightfoot crabs scrabbled over black rocks, and more sea lions snorted.

Sally Lightfoot Crabs

Sally Lightfoot crab. | Photo by Richard Bernabe/

By the end of that first day, we’d seen a dozen more green-and-red marine iguanas and bevies of black marine iguanas draped languorously over black volcanic rocks and one another. We’d watched blue-footed boobies perform a kind of mating sumo stomp, and orange-beaked Nazca boobies soar off cliffs. We’d heard the cheeps of mockingbirds and the coos of doves, and had stood in awe before a rocky, guano-spattered nesting ground for yellow-billed waved albatross as mothers urged morsels of food into chicks’ mouths.

Blue Footed Booby

Blue-footed booby. | Photo by rpbmedia/

Enjoying cocktails and camaraderie at day’s end 

Back on the ship that evening, I sipped a Blue-Footed Booby cocktail—an addicting concoction of pineapple juice, blue curaçao, and cream—and described my exuberant sea lion reception to my fellow travelers. One said she’d watched a BBC nature documentary series about the Galápagos before the cruise. Viewing that spectacular footage, she’d figured the film crew had been on location for a year and spliced together their highlights. “But I’ve been here for just a day and already I’ve seen virtually all the wildlife I saw in those documentaries,” she marveled. “It’s all around us everywhere we go. It’s mind-blowing.”

“And,” her friend added, “the animals don’t seem to care that we’re here. This is their home. We’re just visitors passing through.”

Indeed, during the ship’s daily briefing later that evening, Marvi, one of the Flora’s 10 naturalists, invoked the spirit of Darwin as he surveyed the khaki-clad passengers. “Did you all take 300 photos of sea lions today?” he asked, grinning. “Well, that’s only the beginning, folks. The Galápagos has one of the highest concentrations of diverse wildlife on the planet. You’re in for an unforgettable immersion in the wild wonders of the Enchanted Islands.”  

El Rancho Manzanillo

El Rancho Manzanillo. | Photo courtesy Celebrity Cruises/Quentin Bacon

Exploring the islands with a naturalist

Every day, in fact, the Flora offered a variety of morning and afternoon island excursions, each led by a naturalist certified by Galápagos National Park. Depending on the day’s location, we had hiking, kayaking, and snorkeling options—proof that the islands’ wonders were prolific both on land and underwater. One day we hiked over ropy black pāhoehoe lava to a blue pond surrounded by deep green grasses, where half a dozen flamingos posed in pink splendor. 

Frigate Birds

Frigate birds. | Photo by Eric Lindberg

That afternoon, we snorkeled with brilliant blue-and-yellow king angelfish, shimmering blue-green-and-orange  parrotfish, and black-and-yellow banded butterfly fish. In the watery depths, we caught glimpses of manta rays and whitetip reef sharks.

Each passenger had brought a special dream, it seemed, and it was thrilling to see those dreams come true day by day. One traveler got to glide with manta rays; another witnessed the magnificent wings of a frigate bird in flight. 

A veteran photographer captured an unusual image of a land iguana standing on its hind legs to eat a succulent cactus leaf. One woman confided that her dream was to swim with sea turtles. 

Land Iguana

Land iguana. | Photo by Danita Delimont/

Snorkeling with a trio of sea turtles

On our third snorkel, her boyfriend pointed into the distance, and 3 sea turtles seemed to magically emerge, stroking toward us. She followed their underwater flight for a few minutes, then surfaced ebullient, her smile as wide and sparkling as the sea.

On the ship that evening, as we swapped tales and celebrated bucket list fulfillments over a rum, amaretto, and passion fruit juice cocktail called a Yellow Warbler, the conversation turned to life aboard the ship. The Flora’s occupancy is limited to only 100 passengers, so our group always felt small, congenial, even intimate. Numerous thoughtful touches included complimentary backpacks and marine binoculars.

Sea Turtles

Sea turtle. | Photo by Longjourneys/

Several passengers remarked how the cabins’ floor-to-ceiling windows brought the outside world in, so that we felt intimately connected to the world around us.

The ship nurtured nature in other ways, too. The Flora is the first ship of its size to use solar panels to supplement its electricity supply and reduce emissions. It also supplies all its own freshwater needs with cutting-edge equipment that converts seawater into fresh water. And the Flora’s dynamic positioning system enables the ship to stay in place without using anchors, thus avoiding damage to precious reefs and sea life. 

This kind of environmental stewardship is manifest throughout the ship, from the locally inspired and sourced furnishings to the regionally grown produce and sustainably caught seafood featured in every meal. These touches all seemed to reflect the spirit of the voyage itself: From the captain to the crew to the passengers, an almost religious reverence permeated the ship, a sense that these islands were a sacred place we had all come to worship.

The significance of the voyage crystallized for me on the cruise’s final day. I realized just how blissfully removed I’d become from the world beyond the Galápagos. At the previous evening’s briefing, Marvi told us we’d be visiting Santa Cruz, the most populated of the archipelago’s 4 inhabited islands, with about 30,000 residents. We wouldn’t be entering the main town, but we’d still encounter people, so we were told we’d need to bring our face masks. When I heard the words face mask, I immediately pictured our snorkeling masks, and briefly envisioned us clambering ashore at port wearing snorkeling gear. Amazingly, I’d forgotten all about the pandemic.

Giant Tortoise

Giant tortoise. | Photo by Jeffrey Van Daele/

Cavorting with dozens of giant tortoises

Our final excursion took us to a highland ranch where spindly evergreens, moss-draped cat’s-claw brush, and broccoli-like Scalesia trees provide vegetation for dozens of giant tortoises. We followed a winding trail through lush greenery to an area where they bathe in a muddy pond and plod through the grasses. One particular tortoise caught my eye. With its thick-ringed carapace; scaly, bent-in legs; long, leathery neck; and squat, wrinkled head, it appeared to be a survivor of another age.

Our guide, Carmen, estimated the tortoise’s age to be 150 years. “But no one really knows,” she said. “They’re older than our tracking systems. Someday, future researchers will know.”

My tortoise eyed a tuft of grass and ever so slowly extended its wrinkled neck, its beady eyes focusing on its food. It moved its head with infinite gentleness and, with great calm, opened its mouth and closed it around the tender shoots. A soft munching filled the air. As I watched it eat, I recalled my son marveling at an equally graceful tortoise during our family visit decades earlier.

Greater Flamingos

Greater flamingo. | Photo by Eric Lindberg

Looking back on a tapestry of wonder

I stood in that ageless scene, and the threads of the past and the present spun and spun, wrapping me in a tapestry of wonder. The scene showed sea lions and blue-footed boobies, pink flamingos and green-and-red iguanas, frigate birds and albatross, sea turtles and land tortoises. It also included humans, we travelers who arrived bearing our curiosity as oblation, and the naturalists who so ably guided us, in a kind of communal celebration of nature and the wild.

When I first arrived a week earlier, I’d wondered how the islands had fared in the past couple of decades. During the trip, I’d learned that the Galápagos face threats on many fronts, from the introduction of invasive plant and animal species, to overfishing and illegal fishing, to rising ocean temperatures due to climate change. Stringent regulations on tourist activities have helped preserve the islands, but the challenges posed by human visitation and habitation remain persistent and growing. Despite all this, to my eyes the islands hadn’t changed in 20 years; the astonishments and revelations I’d felt then reverberated in me anew.

South Plaza Island

South Plaza Island. | Photo by Eric Lindberg

Early sailors named the islands Las Islas Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands, because the rocky apparitions appeared and disappeared in the fog and were never where the mapmakers said they would be. I realized that over time, the name’s meaning had evolved as well. For modern adventurers—like me and my new Flora friends—“enchanted” took on a fresh meaning: In giving us a glimpse of an alternative world, the islands had cast a spell that could never be broken. Just like ancient seeds that had landed and taken root on these remote, forbidding shores, new seeds were being sent out into the wider world, to take root in the fertile ground of travelers’ hearts and minds, and to bloom in ways we could only begin to imagine.

Don George is the author of The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George and How to Be a Travel Writer. He writes, lectures, teaches workshops, and leads tours around the world.

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If you go

Celebrity runs cruises to the Galápagos year-round. Rates for the Flora start at $9,999 per person for a 10-night package that includes 2 nights in Quito, Ecuador, and transfer to the Galápagos.

Celebrity Flora Sky Suite

Celebrity Flora sky suite. | Courtesy Celebrity Cruises/Michel Verdure

While Celebrity’s Galápagos cruises are designed for active travelers who enjoy hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking, the cruise line also offers experiences for less-active travelers. 

Your AAA travel advisor can provide trip-planning information and the latest COVID requirements. Visit a AAA branch, call (800) 814-7471, or go to

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